One of the items that had been on my “England To-do” list for several years is to actually visit Bletchley Park, and to be honest, The Imitation Game actually lit a fire under me to make it a priority this trip. So near the end of our visit, we took a day trip by train up to Bletchley, and had a thoroughly pleasant visit to Bletchley Park (which has been nicely refurbished in recent years after decades of mild neglect). If you at all like encryption and “spy stuff”, it’s quite a nice destination: Enigma machines, decryption “Bombes”, and the like. Bletchley Park And like just about any National Heritage site I’ve been to in England, there seem to be two rules about these sorts of places: they are expected to have some sort of cafeteria, and the cafeteria must serve up a particularly dismal rendition of traditional English fare. So after seeing a few tourists noshing on some limp fish and chips with questionable-looking mushy peas, we instead decided to walk back towards Bletchley, and around a half klick down the road, we came across the rather pleasant Eight Belles.
Well, approximately 87 miles after starting our trek down the Cotswold Way, we finally arrived in Bath, pulling up to the end of the trail at Bath Abbey. Bath itself is actually a reasonably metropolitan city, and we were already feeling a bit out of place with our sweaty clothes and muddy boots (oh, the mud!), so our first order of business was finding our hotel (a nice little boutique hotel called the Bay Tree), followed by beer and dinner (one might have recommended, well, a Bath, but ironically, our hotel room didn’t have one. A proper Bath would have to wait until the next day’s trip to the Thermae Bath Spa Modern Roman Baths. Luckily, just down the way from our hotel was a fairly new restaurant that looked quite inviting: The Thief.
Our last night of hiking the Cotswold Way had us hike through some rather scenic areas, including Hawkesbury Upton, Little Sodbury (with another nice Iron Age fort: a “Bury”), and Old Sodbury. After stopping in Old Sodbury at the very pleasant Old Dog Inn for a pint of beer, we then crossed the splendidly beautiful and manicured Dodington Park, which is now owned by James Dyson (of vacuum cleaner fame). And then we found ourselves pulling into one of the last towns on our walk, Tormarton. Tormarton is a very quant little village with stone buildings and a very impressive older church (St Mary Magdalene, which predates the Norman Conquest), and even a healthy selection of B&Bs, most of which caters to the Cotswold Way hiking crowd. What it doesn’t have is a lot of dining options: Our B&B didn’t offer dinner, and the town really has only two restaurants, one in the hotel just outside of town, and the pub. So, we took off our boots, put on our town shoes, and headed in to The Major’s Retreat, the local pub. The Major’s Retreat is not a fancy pub, and doesn’t aspire to be one of the trendy gastropubs, either.
Our next meal stop on the Cotswold Way was the town of Wotton-Under-Edge. Another town that’s been a Market Town for centuries, it draws its name from the fact that the town sits right under the Cotswold Escarpment, looking up at the limestone and hill edge of the escarpment. The town is pleasant enough, with a few nice historic sites (like an old Alms House), and for those hiking the Cotswold Way, offers up pretty much the last grocery store before Bath. When it comes to dining establishments, however, there are only a handful of options, but really, they did seem to make up in it in quality. The local Eagle Steakhouse looked quite excellent indeed, although our late lunch back at the The Old Spot Inn made us look around for some lighter fare. We were tempted by the pleasant smells coming out of the India Palace Tandoori, but, in the end, decided to check out the more modest Royal Oak Inn.
While in my previous review of Ben’s Takeaway I had mentioned some of the decline of Britain’s rural pubs, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about some of the successes. As we continued our hike on the Cotswold Way, while the weather was a bit dreary, the pub situation got substantially better. After checking out some Iron age barrows and forts at Uley Long Barrow and Uley Bury, we descended into the village of Uley (home of the quite good Uley Brewery) and then headed into Dursley, which is one of the larger towns along our hike. Being a market town (complete with an impressive Market House in the center of town), Dursley also has quite the active beer scene, with several active pubs and a very active CAMRA group. So when we came across The Old Spot Inn right on the trail, we decided that we had walked enough during the day to warrant a late lunch.
My unusual work travel destinations often take me to some of the less traveled corners of the United States. Most recently, one of my projects has me taking several trips to South Bend, Indiana, a region (“Michiana”, in the local parlance) that I hadn’t actually visited since the late 1990s. South Bend itself is a bit of a difficult destination: the downtown area is one of those classic Midwest industrial cities that hit their heyday around WWII (with Bendix and Studebaker having extremely large plants there), but they’ve been in a state of decline since the 1960s: the downtown area is filled with all sorts of abandoned industrial buildings. But the area is also supported decently by University of Notre Dame (north of town in their own municipality of Notre Dame, IN). So it’s a mixed bag. Despite some of the economic challenges, the region has several things going for it. First of all, it’s actually a rather good region for beer, with quite a few beers from Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan being ubiquitous in local bars and restaurants. It’s very easy to find even fairly rare beers from such well-regarded breweries as Bells and Founders, and the region itself has several good local breweries, including Bare Hands , Iechyd Da (Elkhart), and the nationally famous Three Floyds. But while it’s a very, very good beer destination, I’m still figuring out the food scene. My first stab at figuring out the local food scene was a popular Celtic pub downtown that caters to the Notre Dame scene, Fiddler’s Hearth.
When my brother moved to London back in 2008, I thought it was neat that the building he lived in had a pub right downstairs. Problem was, that particular pub, the Pimlico Tram, was actually a lousy pub with a not terribly great clientele. But then something marvelous happened: the Pimlico Tram closed, and instead pub owner Martin Hayes refurbished the place and re-opened it as the Cask Pub and Kitchen. And, practically overnight, the lousy pub downstairs became the hip new pub downstairs, with a particularly good selection of British and imported beers, eight hand-pulled handles, and a reasonably good selection of pub grub. And starting that year, they’ve continued a run of excellence, with several awards including multiple winnings of The Publican Magazine Pub of the Year, Great British Pub Awards’ Best Cask Ale Pub in London, and CAMRA’s West London Pub of the Year. Enough so that I can’t even keep track of it. Meanwhile, they’ve been expanding, including more beers on tap, and, more importantly, sister pubs, with several locations of the Craft Beer Co open throughout Greater London (Craft is basically the same concept as Cask, but without the food). I hadn’t reviewed Cask before, since I generally don’t review pubs unless there’s something particularly notable about them or their food, and, quite frankly, I hadn’t been terribly impressed by Cask’s pub food in the past. However, starting in 2012, Cask significantly re-tooled their menu. On Sunday nights they still do the traditional “Sunday Roast”, but the rest of the week their kitchen transforms into Forty Burgers.
Our next day in London, we decided to do the tourist thing. Out in East Greenwich, Emirates Airlines built the Emirates Air Line, a cable car from the Greenwich Peninsula to the Royal Docks. It’s a bit of an odd transit option, connecting two points that normal people nor tourists usually need to go between, but it’s also shockingly high and gives a great view of the city. We also used it as an excuse to take the Thames Clipper river boat service to get there, which was a surprisingly pleasant and efficient way to get from downtown London (Millbank Pier) to Greenwich. On the way back, we were hungry, so we decided to stop off in Greenwich and check out the Gipsy Moth, a modest pub that’s near both Greenwich Pier and the Cutty Sark.
Despite being one of the smaller European countries, Belgium has a rather extensive beer brewing and drinking culture that goes back centuries. As a result Belgium is rather famous as one of the world’s top beer countries, and the Belgian beer styles are getting increasingly popular in other countries as well. With several hundred Belgian brews available, you are never far from a beer bar most anywhere in a Belgian city, and in Brussels, our rental flat was just down the street from one of the more regarded ones, À la Mort Subite. It was our first destination upon arriving in Brussels (after a short walking tour), and, on our last evening in Belgium, it was also one of our last, since we all decided another trip to À la Mort Subite was in order.
After our most succesful trip to Husavik for whale watching, we headed back down to the Myvatn area. It started to rain pretty heavily, but we still had a nice hike through Dimmuborgir. After seeing many cool lava formations, and be regaled with the stories of the Yule Lads. After some reading up on it from the various signs at Dimmuborgir, I learned that the Yule Lads are the result of a head-on collision between old Norse and Christian traditions: the Yule Lads are the sons of the mountain trolls (Grýla). Unlike the Grýla themselves (who search out and scare naughty children), the Yule Lads only come at Christmastime, and are more mischievous than anything else: they have names like door-slammer (Hurðaskellir), bowl-licker (Askasleikir), sausage-swiper (Bjúgnakrækir), and meat-hook (Ketkrókur, he looks down chimneys and steals roasting meat with a long hook). The supposed way to get the Yule Lads to leave you alone is for your parents to give you lots of clothing at Christmas. I swear I’m not making this up, this is from the signs at Dimmuborgir! But after all that hiking, we were again a bit wet, a bit tired, and really wanted some dinner. While Vogafjós almost lured us in again, we decided to mix it up and try another of the area’s (very few) restaurants, Gamli Bærinn, a pub located next to the Hótel Reynihlíð.